The "indie rap series" is a cycle of interviews organized with some key activists of the late 90's / early 2000's independent rap scene in North America or beyond. Some of them are almost famous, some others less known or forgotten artists. These interviews will help documenting a book, written in French and dedicated to the same scene, and published in 2014, in the same collection as Rap, Hip-Hop''.
If we have a close look at the indie rap movement, we observe that several scenes were part of this, one in New-York around Fondle'em, then Company Flow or the Nuyorican Poets Café, the West Coast Underground and the post-Project Blowed scene in California, the Midwest with the Rhymesayers label, and some others in Canada. According to you, were those all different or just one single movement?
Those movements may have started from different places but all had very similar goals and philosophies. It was something similar to punk rock being a reaction to big budget arena rock of the 70s. Hip-hop had reached new levels of commercial viability in the mid and late 90s, while Will Smith was getting "jiggy" with it, the ghost of Biggie was riding yachts, and Puff Daddy seemed to have his hand in every major label rap release at the time. The West Coast gangster sound was diminishing from popular rap while the gritty East Coast sound had been recontextualized and softened. It was a pop rap era of Ja Rule singing gruff voiced next to a number of R&B singers or Missy Elliot driving her Jeep to the beach. Rap had gone soft and safer than ever. It was rather boring and lost the socio-political edge that had originally fueled its fire throughout the mid to late 1980s.
The influence of hardcore punk and indie rock scenes had spread worldwide and it was a thriving era for indie record labels. People were pressing their own tapes and CDs and a number of strong independent distributors were able to place small budget records in stores worldwide. The late 90s were also a peak for music sales in general. All of this contributed to a boom in the indie rap movement of the late 1990s which was sonically somewhat of an extension of what groups like Freestyle Fellowship or Organized Konfusion had been doing since the early 1990s.
By 1996 acts like Company Flow (which 5 years later formed the Def Jux collective label) had made huge waves in hip-hop while embracing a punk rock style anti-corporate, pro-independent ethos. Shortly after, the same message spread nationally and was pushed even further by collectives such as the California based Living Legends and Shape Shifters, or Minneapolis based Rhymesayers Entertainment which embraced lo-fi tape releases and 4 track recording. By the end of the 1990s collective record labels such as Oakland based Anticon or even Canadian based Peanuts & Corn were created as an extension of those same ideals.
Where would you put the limits of this movement, in time, place, or styles?
Context is an important aspect of this analysis because this music has been highly influential to music that followed it. Some of it may sound outdated or "normal" by today's standards but at the time of its creation a lot of this was considered highly progressive.
It should be noted that in this interview, when I refer to the core years of this movement, I'm mainly referring to music from the years 1991 - 2001. It should also be noted that I am focused more on an overarching sound, style and content type than a rigid concept of "indie" since those options were very limited in the early 1990s.
The overall sound of this rap movement is generally defined by beats and lyrics that sounded uncommon at the time of their creation.
The rappers who tended to be categorized under this sound are oftentimes more technically proficient, verbose and poetic than most anything that was being marketed heavily by major labels. The production techniques could vary from retro "throwback" sounds (Jurassic 5) to highly progressive sounding in nature (i.e. Company Flow and Anticon). Lyrically, rappers from this movement tended to come from an extension of "conscious" hip-hop (i.e. KRS-One, Public Enemy).
What is left of this movement today, according to you?
What's left of the movement today is highly splintered into many smaller sects based on certain specific sounds or fashion more than an overarching ethos as it was before. Many of the most supportive independent distributors and record stores closed their doors. There are less magazines, websites or stores interested in this kind of music - and that has lead to a decrease in general awareness and popularity. Still, the scene remains relevant on a grassroots level outside of media attention.
Right now the most dominant indie rap culture in the world today belongs to Minneapolis. Atmosphere's enormous success has catapulted the Rhymesayers Entertainment label into the next bracket. Third wave collectives such as Doomtree in Minneapolis have developed large fan bases while still maintaining a classic indie rap, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian stance. Still, those artists maintain a deep respect for the roots of their music scene and have kept a vibrant independent rap scene growing.
Unfortunately most other geographic sects of "indie rap" were spearheaded by artists who weren't as generous to their local scenes or decided to focus on their own careers rather than develop the overall movement. Def Jux was discontinued by El P although he and certain label mates still maintain successful music careers. Sole left the Anticon collective label that he basically founded but still creates and releases music regularly. Sage Francis runs his own tight knit Strange Famous label and will start releasing his own music on there soon. Project Blowed (umbrella over everyone from 2mex to Busdriver to Freestyle Fellowship) continues to run its open mic in Leimert Park, Los Angeles but has been rather quiet as a label or collective. Los Angeles has, in turn, given birth to a hugely popular "beat scene" based around a weekly event called "Low End Theory" which is closely tied into the hip-hop scene.
What is your personal story with indie rap?
Although I was a rap fan as a young child in the late 1980s/early 90s, my interest in indie rap really started in high school because of the influence of some good friends. Mike King (aka iCON The Mic King) and I met freshman year of high school in 1995 and he basically single handedly influenced my growing interest in hip-hop. I had some interest in graffiti, classic hip-hop and reggae, but Mike introduced me to collectives like Boot Camp, furthered my knowledge of the Wu-Tang, and was eventually the first person to play me the Company Flow Funcrusher Plus cassette. We listened to a weekly college radio hip-hop show on WNHU in West Haven, CT and commonly called in making requests or shout outs.
The Internet was also growing rapidly at this time and introduced us to a whole world of indie rap catalogs (Sandbox Automatic, ATAK etc) and websites that kept us super up to date with what was coming out. I spent every summer with my father in Berkeley, CA, also so in 1998 or 99 we were well aware of what was happening in California with events such as Broke Ass Summer Jam which the Living Legends were putting together every summer until 2001, I believe. By the year 2001 my band (Anonymous Inc.) and I had traveled around California with an 8 track and managed to collaborate with a bunch of artists from the California indie rap scene including La2TheBay affiliates such as Deeskee, Maleko andTommy V, The Shape Shifters, Sole and Dose of Anticon, 2mex and Xololanxinxo of Of Mexican Descent, and Busdriver.
It was a super exciting time for independent hip-hop - it really felt like something important was going on. I just happened to be a teenager learning from all of these guys who were really building a world wide fan base independently in a very DIY fashion. It was inspirational to me and always stuck with me. Today I can only hope to preserve a taste of what excited me so much about this type of music in the first place.
Would you consider yourself as part of this movement? Or is this something you don't like to be pigeonholed into?
Yes, I consider myself part of the third wave of this movement and one of the few remaining advocates and proponents of progressive hip-hop today.
What would be your indie rap albums top 5 or 10?
It's very difficult for me to answer this without referring to some of the most important earlier "underground" hip-hop records:
- Freestyle Fellowship - Inner City Griots
- Beneath the Surface
- Aceyalone - All Balls Don't Bounce
- Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus
- Organized Konfusion - Stress
- Deep Puddle Dynamics
- Mindclouders - Fake It Until You Make It
- The Shape Shifters - Planet of the Shapes
- Awol One & Daddy Kev - Souldoubt
- Of Mexican Descent - Exitos Y Mas Exitos EP
- Busdriver - Temporary Forever
- Clouddead - s/t
What would be your indie rap tracks top 5 or 10?
It's really hard to just pick a few tracks - but here are some of the more important tracks to have influenced me:
- Freestyle Fellowship (Myka 9) - Seventh Seal
- Organized Konfusion - Bring It On
- Of Mexican Descent & Circus - Night & Day
- 3 Melancholy Gypsies - Sunsprayed
- Awol One - Sleeping All Day
- Aceyalone - The Greatest Show on Earth
- Company Flow - The Fire in which you Burn
- Sole - Bottle of Humans
- Shape Shifters - Sacred Geometry
- Busdriver - Imaginary Places
What would be your indie rap artists top 5 or 10?
- Freestyle Fellowship
- Company Flow / El-P
- Organized Konfusion
- Of Mexican Descent
- The Shape Shifters
- 3 Melancholy Gypsies
- Deep Puddle Dynamics
- Anti-pop Consortium
Overall, do you think that such a category, indie rap, was or is relevant?
If referring to a certain era of independent rap, yes, it is very relevant. Most importantly, indie rap's influence on mainstream rap today is undeniable. After 2005 or so, mainstream rap started embracing more "weird" production and lyricism. I think it's a direct influence of the seeds sewn by indie rap. Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West or Macklemore are platinum selling major label rap artists today, in 2013 (please notice, the interview took place over the summer 2013), who regularly borrow directly from the independent rap sounds or lyrical styles.
Rap history would not be complete without mentioning the progressive side of the story. The sounds that came out of the boundary pushing late 1990s/early 2000s have clearly left their mark on hip-hop in general. It's very easy for writers to completely ignore indie rap when talking about hip-hop but, in doing so, they would be ignoring the birthplace of monumental stylistic changes in the genre.
Apart from this indie rap subgenre, what would be your diagnosis on the state of hip-hop nowadays? What do you find appealing in today's rap music?
Like rock music before it, hip-hop has simply splintered into many different genres within itself. The initial "one culture" KRS-One concept of hip-hop is now basically passé. Although this culture of hip-hop still lives within the margins of our small independent hip-hop community it has become largely irrelevant. Unlike 20 years ago, today you can put 5 people in a room that all listen to different forms of hip-hop and there could be very little overlap in the artists they all enjoy. Just as the punk rocker wouldn't necessarily love The Beatles, young rap fans tend to have little allegiance or reverence for hip-hop elders.
Furthermore, much like punks starting bands without actually knowing how to play instruments, there's a general lack of interest in skill level as well. It's almost as if the youth has grown up hearing so much skillful rap over the last 10 years on mainstream and independent levels - from artists such as Eminem or Busta Rhymes or Aesop Rock or Pharaohe Monch - that they are now preferring the über simplicity of Waka Flocka Flame or Chief Keef because it requires very little attention and is more based on energy than ability. Although I have my personal criticisms of white bourgeois fetishization of "ignorant rap" by media outlets and hipster culture, I can also recognize the basic inherent rebelliousness that attracts young people to this type of music. In the same way that certain dance tracks can successfully move a crowd for hours without a single rhythmic change, simpler rap can hypnotize and win an audience with proper backing beats and use of incessant repetition.
This is the climate of hip-hop we live in now - it's a time when ANYTHING GOES. Music can be recorded on phones and released easily for free, and there are very few rules. That's the main difference between then and now. The hip-hop I grew up listening to was still rooted in basic hip-hop etiquette - it was not cool to repeat yourself 100 times in one song, it was not cool to sample a song that came out on the radio yesterday, it was not cool to rap at shows over your finalized songs with vocals intact, it was certainly not cool to resample classic hip-hop beats and re-brand them as your own.
Nowadays all of that flies by generally unnoticed or under-criticized. In truth, indie rap actually helped to alter a lot of those original rules and therefore helped change what hip-hop meant. Some of the fads we may hate most in modern rap were first introduced via indie rap outlets. As with all art - the rule books constantly change and fads come and go. The disregard of hip-hop rules and history is actually the thing I find equally appealing and abhorrent about rap music in 2013.
Coming back to you, what are you doing these days? What are your current projects and activities?
I'm actually close to releasing a very limited vinyl-only album called Forgotten Forever with the French label Cooler Than Cucumbers. Aside from that - I'm close to finishing a project with Factor and another collection of singles and new material with DJ Scientist. On top of that I'm working on a collection of acoustic recordings for the DIYBandits label. It's a very busy time for me.